Learning another language usually involves moments when you encounter other people speaking that language. I live and work in an environment where I hear multiple languages every day (one of my two university departments has upwards of 75 nationalities in its undergraduate community), but I’m yet to overhear a Yiddish conversation on the bus to campus or in the coffee queue. Part of this is geographical context – I’m reliably informed that in certain areas of Montreal you can overhear Hassidic kids talking about their radio controlled cars in Yiddish, but in the Midlands that’s less than likely. In fact, the only time I’ve heard Yiddish spoken in the street is when I’m already involved in the conversation. The upside of this situation is that I get to indulge my linguistic path-finding fantasies by using Yiddish in locations where it might never have been heard before. I’m not sure if it’s cultural pride or just straight up contrariness that means I’ve learnt Yiddish grammar on a beach in Suffolk, shouted Yiddish threats on the East Sussex marshes and written Yiddish greetings in the sand of North Norfolk, but it’s great fun either way.
What this lack of casually overheard Yiddish means is that I’m hyper-alert to those moments when it turns up in films and on television. As previously discussed, the internet means that I can go online and find the most wonderful examples of spoken Yiddish, but it’s these chance encounters that I really love. Even before I started learning Yiddish properly, every time a Yiddish word showed up on screen it made me happy. Historically, the huge majority of these random snippets were jokes and insults, which I usually understood but which expanded my vocabulary nonetheless. A special shout-out here to The Goonies (both Yiddish and Hebrew there, thanks to the inimitable Chunk) and The Simpsons, which has done more for the cause of sharing Yiddish than any other show I know.
Now that my Yiddish has improved I can recognize it even in the most unexpected places, like, for example, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when an overly appreciative Marvin Acme tells Jessica Rabbit that she “farshmaysned” (slaughtered) her adoring audience. This example gets extra points for the wonderfully cavalier mash-up of a Yiddish verb (farshmaysn) with English verb ending (-ed); Yiddish is great for this kind of multi-lingual grammatical construction. After all, what’s the point of a diasporic language if you can’t combine a Hebrew word with a Slavic prefix and then pluralize it according to Germanic grammar? But my absolute favourite unexpected Yiddish moment comes in Robert Hamer’s beautifully bleak post-war noir The Long Memory (1953), when John Slater calls Fred Johnson ”You shiker old shnorer” (that is, “You drunken old beggar”). What’s most amusing about this example is that the subtitles on the DVD don’t even try to work out the Yiddish, instead rather imaginatively transforming Slater’s line into “You old slurry”. That does have a certain estuarine suitability, what with the scene taking place on a Thames riverboat, but someone, somewhere, really dropped the ball on that one.
Of course, the problem with these examples is that they’re nowhere near conversational Yiddish, which is completely understandable but still disappointing for an obsessive like myself. There are some contemporary Yiddish treasures out there, but you do need to look for them. The opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ A Serious Man is a very good effort, introducing me as it did to the concept of a דיבוק (dybbuk) courtesy of the legendary and much lamented Fyvush Finkel. If all dybbuks were this adorable, who’d be scared of them?
And yet despite its atmospheric heft, this scene doesn’t really represent conversational Yiddish, at least, not as my family would have spoken it. There’s nothing wrong with the grammar or anything technical like that, it’s more that the language feels a little stagey, as though the characters are talking in proverbs. In fact, once this scene is over there’s no other Yiddish in the film, so it tends to perpetuate the misconception that Yiddish is simply part of that lost other world of European Jewry. That’s not the Yiddish I know, which is resolutely here and now rather than still languishing in some freezing shtetl, but it has been surprisingly difficult to find modern, conversational Yiddish represented in popular culture.
This is why we should all be thankful for the existence of Yidlife Crisis AKA Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, two absolute reprobates and unrepentant gannets who have managed to capture Yiddish in all its filthy, food-centric glory. Discovering their web series was cause for much rejoicing, not least because at last I could hear Yiddish being spoken like any other living language, full of word-play and silliness as well as some Grade-A swearing.
These guys learnt Yiddish at High School in Montreal (there’s a pattern developing here) so have something of a linguistic head-start, but listening to them rip on each other and the world at large in the language I love most is an emesdike mekhaye (true delight). The only problem is, whenever I watch an episode I end up ravenously hungry. Damn, those guys can eat. But in the absence of Yiddish that I can overhear in the street, this is enough to remind me that the mame-loshn is alive and well, if a little overly obsessed with poutine.